Samuel Foote

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Samuel Foote, although he receives very little attention today, was one of the leading playwrights, actors, and theater managers in mid-eighteenth century England. Foote’s father was an attorney and magistrate who served as mayor in Truro, Cornwall, as Member of Parliament for Tiverton, as commissioner of the Prize Office, and receiver of fines. His mother was Eleanor Dinely Goodere, the daughter of baronet Sir Edward Goodere of Hereford.

Samuel was the youngest of three sons. The oldest son, Edward, was trained as a clergyman but was unable to support himself financially and depended on Samuel. There is very little recorded about the second son, John.

Foote attended Truro Grammar School and, in 1737, entered Worcester College, Oxford, whose founder, Sir Thomas Cookes, was related to the Foote family. During his tenure at Oxford, Foote is said to have become a competent Greek and Latin scholar. He was an undisciplined student, however, and his frequent unauthorized absences led the College to disenroll him on January 28, 1740.

After leaving Oxford, Foote entered London’s Inner Temple to study law, but he soon left to replenish his depleted fortune. On January 10, 1741, he married Mary Hicks, an old acquaintance from Truro. After spending her dowry, Foote neglected and deserted her. This marriage produced no children, but Foote’s will mentions two sons, Francis and George. Scholar Trefman suggests that these children were the result of a short-lived liaison between Foote and one of his servants.

Foote made his first appearance as a professional actor on February 6, 1744, at the Haymarket Theatre in the role of Othello. Foote’s forte, however, was not tragedy but comedy and impersonation. Foote mimicked many of the luminaries of his day, including Charles Macklin, Thomas Sheridan (father of playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan), David Garrick, Arthur Murphy, and Henry Fielding. This comedic flair marked his private life as well, and he was a noted conversationalist. Even Samuel Johnson found Foote’s humor attractive, observing “He has wit too, and is not deficient in ideas, or in fertility and variety of imagery . . . he never lets truth stand between him and a jest, and he is sometimes mighty coarse.”

Foote had friends at court, including the duke of York, although these relationships often seemed to be troublesome rather than advantageous. His lifelong connection with wealthy, handsome, socialite Francis Blake Delaval, for example, did lead to many high times at Delaval’s family seat. However, when Delaval commissioned Foote to facilitate the marriage between a supposedly wealthy elderly widow, Lady Isabella Pawlett, and Delaval, the result was strikingly similar to a stage farce: legal battles, social scandal, and very little money for either Foote or Delaval—most of Lady Isabella’s wealth proving to be part of an irrevocable trust for her daughter. Another scheme—in which Foote and some demimondaines were to accompany Delaval and Sir Richard Atkins on a yacht trip to Corsica and help Delaval secure the vacant throne of that country—ended in the death of Sir Richard.

The temptations of high-living friends with money to waste led to other problems for Foote. Although he worked hard, was a prolific playwright, and was much in demand as an actor, debts plagued him for most of his life. A low point was reached in 1742, when he was imprisoned for nonpayment of debts, having been charged by creditors ranging from his mother to Lady Viscountess Castlecoma. The passage of a bill for the relief of insolvent debtors led to Foote’s release, but although his economic difficulties were never to become that acute again, they never entirely disappeared.

Foote traveled often for both...

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work and recreation. It became habitual for him to travel to Dublin and Edinburgh to act, and he regularly spent his holidays in Paris. His trips to Paris inspiredThe Englishman in Paris and The Englishman Returned from Paris.

Foote’s strongest competition as a theater manager came from the licensed winter theaters, Drury Lane and Covent Garden. In order to make a living, Foote rented and managed the Little Theatre in the Haymarket during the summer months—an insecure undertaking because he did not have legal permission to operate his theater. There he began what came to be a wildly popular form of entertainment consisting of imitations of various actors and celebrities and satiric sketches loosely grouped in programs that were commonly called The Diversions of the Morning.

This situation changed in 1765 as a result of a sad accident. While visiting the aristocratic Lord and Lady Mexborough, Foote’s friends teased him into claiming that he was a good horseman. In backing up this false claim, Foote mounted the duke of York’s spirited horse and was thrown immediately. The hard fall shattered Foote’s leg in several places and the duke’s personal physician had to amputate it. Feeling guilty for his role in this affair, the duke used his influence to obtain for Foote the summer patent rights to the theater, a patent good for the remainder of Foote’s life.

In 1767, Foote bought and refurbished the Haymarket Theatre . He successfully managed it and played most of the lead roles or acted in the afterpieces until 1776, when George Colman was finally able to rent the patent from him. Several times before this, Foote had contemplated retiring and leasing his theater rights, but his reluctance to give up his extremely favorable position in the theater world had always made him reconsider. He only gave the lease to Colman because of the mounting pressure of a battle Foote was waging against the duchess of Kingston, the last and perhaps most disastrous lawsuit resulting from Foote’s habit of satirizing persons involved in contemporary scandals. (An earlier lawsuit over Foote’s lampoon in The Orators of the one-legged Dublin printer George Faulkner had been won by Faulkner.)

The duchess of Kingston, the one-time countess of Bristol, had begun life as Elizabeth Chudleigh. While Chudleigh was maid of honor to the princess of Wales, she met and married the heir to the earl of Bristol—in secret, so that her standing at Court was not jeopardized. A few years later, she found a man she preferred, the wealthy and elderly duke of Kingston. Becoming the duchess involved a series of shady legal maneuvers, but the transfer was accomplished; after the duke’s death, however, the duchess was indicted for bigamy and her trial became the focus for gossip in the highest social circles.

Almost inevitably, Foote made the duchess’s greed and hypocrisy the subject of a satire, The Trip to Calais, enraging the duchess. She retaliated by using her connections to prohibit the play’s continued production. Foote did rewrite the play, with a new second act, as The Capuchin, but the duchess and her supporters were not appeased. A newspaper war ensued. One of Chudleigh’s hangers-on, William Jackson, editor of The Public Ledger, bribed a servant whom Foote had discharged, John Sangster, to sue Foote for homosexual assault, and covered the matter extensively in his scandal sheet.

When the matter finally came to trial, the charge was found to be totally unsubstantiated, and Foote was acquitted. Although Foote appeared in forty-nine mainpieces and twenty-six afterpieces while awaiting trial, the most acting he had done since the loss of his leg, after the verdict was rendered he began to suffer from recurring seizures. In order to rebuild his health, Foote started for Paris, but he died en route at the Ship Inn at Dover. On October 27, 1777, his friends buried him in Westminster Abbey.


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